Gays Will, Indeed, Love Lucy

By |2015-01-08T09:00:00-05:00January 8th, 2015|Entertainment|

By Amy J. Parrent

Kevin Remington (Fred Mertz), Thea Brooks (Lucy Ricardo), Lori Hammel (Ethel Mertz) and Euriamis Losada (Ricky Ricardo) in the national tour of I Love Lucy Live on Stage. Photo: Justin Namon

Before the British Fab Four of the ’60s, America had its own ’50s-era fab four: Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel. Now you can experience “I Love Lucy” in person, and this time, in color.
“I Love Lucy Live on Stage” is an affectionate look at a show whose decades-long life in reruns has made it both iconic and a sort of electronic comfort food for millions. Or rather, “comfort food with a pedigree,” as cast member Mark Christopher Tracy calls it.
Tracy plays Maury Jasper, the in-studio host, introducing you to the workings of filming a show for this newfangled thing called television, and entertaining you between episode setups. He might even drag you onstage for a ’50s-style quiz show.
“I’m the bridge between the audience and what happens at the Desilu Playhouse,” says Tracy in a recent interview with BTL. “Once you cross the threshold, you’re not in Macomb; you’re just off Las Palmas in Hollywood.”
In 1952.
“My duty is to keep everybody in this world.”
To do that, he’s become a walking Wikipedia (wait, this is the 1950s, so make that a living Encyclopedia Britannica) of ’50s facts.
“If I make a ref to the White House, it’s President Truman,” he points out. “Eisenhower wasn’t president yet.
“It’s great to have improv experience and knowledge of the period,” he adds. He also has a bag of actor’s tricks to put him in the moment.
“Backstage I have a 1952 Life magazine. It keeps me locked into that era. And before the show, I run through my head where I parked my Plymouth in the studio parking lot.”
One time, when an actor was injured during a show, he had to kill a couple minutes while the crew and cast scrambled to figure out who’d go on in his place. “I made up something off the top of my head about congratulating Lucy for being up for Homemaker of the Year from Good Housekeeping,” he says.
“Whether the audience gets every ’50s reference doesn’t matter. It’s like Shakespeare – they rely on that the actors understand what they’re saying.”
If a cultural/historic reference is too obtuse, Tracy says, “I’d rather take a chance that people say, ‘I’m gonna look that up,’ rather than making an anachronistic comment.”
Setting the ’50s mood is important for any of the performers, he mentioned. “Even members of the onstage band have an identity. It’s personal; it may not be shared with audience, but it puts them back in that time.”
And some members of the audience prove quite adept at time-traveling as well. Between the two episodes of the show that are performed, Tracy runs a quiz show with audience members.
Upon learning one participant was a mailman, Tracy/Maury – who knew the price of a stamp in 1952 – asked his guest when the cost of mailing a letter would go up to three cents. Without missing a beat, the mailman responded, “Never.”
Co-adapted by playwright-director Rick Sparks and Kim Flagg, currently a writer on “Last Man Standing” (and former writer on other Tim Allen projects), the stage show has played longer runs in LA and Chicago, and toured the country. It’s also been seen – and loved – by people associated with the TV production.
“When we were in LA, we had the son of the show’s first producer, Jess Oppenheimer, as an honored guest more than once,” says Tracy. “And writer Bob Schiller, then 93 years old, also saw and loved the show.”
But the show’s success was another challenge. Its early venue, a 99-seat theater in LA, easily mimicked the cramped confines of a TV studio. But now, playing auditoriums of up to 2,000, the cast still needs to transport you to that cozy little mid-20th-century studio.
The main set pieces of the live show are two lesser-known episodes, including one in which Lucy has to learn how to jitterbug to perform for a producer. Complications and hilarity ensue when her audition comes after a visit to the eye doctor.
“These episodes were chosen for very specific reasons,” says Tracy. “They’re not the most well-known ones – the chocolate factory, the grape stomping – because those are so iconic. People have them spot-welded in their memory.”
Tracy says the show resonates on more than just a nostalgic level. “To do ‘I Love Lucy’ is taking a huge chance with people’s memories and feelings about the past. They often come into the theater saying, “Entertain me; convince me this is Lucille Ball. When we do the show, we’re as earnest as we can be – it’s not a satire.”
And by show’s end, he says, the cast has often found audience members with tears in their eyes. And not just from laughter.

(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
PREVIEW
‘I Love Lucy Live on Stage’
Macomb Center for the Performing Arts
44575 Garfield Road, Clinton Township
2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17
3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18
$54-69
586-286-2222
http://www.macombcenter.com

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.